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Chapter 16

There is no solitude which comes so near being tangible as that of a vast empty workshop, crowded a moment since. The busy, intense life that has gone from it mysteriously leaves behind enough of itself to make the stillness poignant. One might imagine the invisible ghost of doomed Toil wandering from bench to bench, and noiselessly fingering the dropped tools, still warm from the workman's palm. Perhaps this impalpable presence is the artisan's anxious thought, stolen back to brood over the uncompleted task.

Though Mr. Slocum had spoken lightly of Slocum's Yard with only one workman in it, when he came to contemplate the actual fact he was struck by the pathos of it, and the resolution with which he awoke that morning began to desert him.

"The worst is over," exclaimed Richard, joining his two friends on the veranda, "and everything went smoother than I expected."

"Everything went, sure enough," said Mr. Slocum, gloomily; "they all went,--old Giles, and Lumley, and everybody."

"We somewhat expected that, you know."

"Yes, I expected it, and wasn't prepared for it."

"It was very bad," said Richard, shaking his head.

The desertion of Giles and his superannuated mates especially touched Mr. Slocum.

"Bad is no word; it was damnable."

"Oh, papa!"

"Pardon me, dear; I couldn't help it. When a man's pensioners throw him over, he must be pretty far gone!"

"The undertow was too strong for them, sir, and they were swept away with the rest. And they all but promised to stay. They will be the very first to come back."

"Of course we shall have to take the old fellows on again," said Mr. Slocum, relenting characteristically.

"Never!" cried Richard.

"I wish I had some of your grit."

"I have none to spare. To tell the truth, when I stood up there to speak, with every eye working on me, like a half-inch drill, I would have sold myself at a low figure."

"But you were a perfect what's-his-name,--Demosthenes," said Mr. Slocum, with a faint smile. "We could hear you."

"I don't believe Demosthenes ever moved an audience as I did mine!" cried Richard gaily. "If his orations produced a like effect, I am certain that the Grecian lecture-bureau never sent him twice to the same place."

"I don't think, Richard, I would engage you over again."

"I am sure Richard spoke very well," interrupted Margaret. "His speech was short"--

"Say shortened, Margaret, for I hadn't got through when they left."

"No, I will not jest about it. It is too serious for jesting. What is to become of the families of all these men suddenly thrown out of employment?"

"They threw themselves out, Mag," said her father.

"That does not mend the matter, papa. There will be great destitution and suffering in the village with every mill closed; and they are all going to close, Bridget says. Thank Heaven that this did not happen in the winter!"

"They always pick their weather," observed Mr. Slocum.

"It will not be for long," said Richard encouragingly. "Our own hands and the spinners, who had no ground for complaint, will return to work shortly, and the managers of the iron mills will have to yield a point or two. In a week at the outside everything will be running smoothly, and on a sounder foundation than before. I believe the strike will be an actual benefit to everybody in the end."

By dint of such arguments and his own sanguine temperament, Richard succeeded in reassuring Mr. Slocum for the time being, though Richard did not hide from himself the gravity of the situation. There was a general strike in the village. Eight hundred men were without work. That meant, or would mean in a few days, two or three thousand women and children without bread. It does not take the wolf long to reach a poor man's door when it is left ajar.

The trades-union had a fund for emergencies of this sort, and some outside aid might be looked for; but such supplies are in their nature precarious and soon exhausted. It is a noticeable feature of strikes that the moment the workman's pay stops his living expenses increase. Even the more economical becomes improvident. If he has money, the tobacco shop and the tavern are likely to get more of it than the butcher's cart. The prolonged strain is too great to be endured without stimulant.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich

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